DINING WITH FAMILY?
LET SCIENCE EXPLAIN
LAST MONTH, IN advance of its annual Stress in America report, the American Psychological Association released what will likely be counted among the most obvious research findings of 2016. The presidential election, concluded the APA, was a source of significant anxiety for the country. Regardless of party, over half of American adults surveyed felt very or somewhat stressed by the election. Gasps could be heard from across nowhere.
Because the eventual winner finished his campaign with the highest unfavorability ratings in modern history, chances are good that stress levels for a lot of Americans won’t be plummeting any time soon. The election, distinguished by a sharp rural-urban split, divided many families as effectively as it divided the country as a whole. Thanksgiving reunions promise to be the source of some tension and anxiety this year, which provides an excellent reason to discuss stress—and what it actually does to the human body.
The term “stress,” as it’s commonly used today, wasn’t actually coined until 1946, when Austrian-borne physician Hans Selye attempted to describe a pattern of maladaptive responses he had observed in lab rats. It seemed that in the course of various experiments, the rats tended to exhibit the same range of physical symptoms, regardless of which hormones or foreign tissues they had been injected with. The rodents, Selye believed, were reacting to the trauma of the experiments themselves.
Our understanding of stress, and of its physiological effects, has come a long way in the years since. We now know that when the brain perceives a threat, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary and adrenal glands, activating the production of cortisol and epinephrine, known together as the “stress hormones.” The process is involuntary, governed by the autonomic nervous system, and highly individualized.
Stress exists to help us. The spikes in heart rate and blood pressure caused by stress hormones are still crucial to the “fight or flight” response, and for our early ancestors on the plains of Africa, a forceful response to stress could have meant the difference between life and death. But today we experience stress in disproportion to a variety of non-threatening stimuli—and as a result, stress hormones can accumulate and provoke superfluous reactions across the body. Hans Selye blamed numerous medical conditions on “errors in our adaptive response to stress."
Nausea and vomiting are two acute examples. It might seem counterintuitive, but the digestive tract—regulated by what is known as the enteric nervous system—contains more nerve cells than the entire spinal cord, and is often referred to as the “second brain.” In times of panic, stress hormones will push blood away from the gastrointestinal and genitourinary systems, sometimes causing an uproar from, among other things, the vast society of foreign microbes living in our gut. “It’s no time to feed or breed,” says Andy Morgan, a PTSD expert at the University of New Haven. The urge to throw up or pee your pants, he says, “is related to these systems evacuating while energy and resources are redirected to muscle groups and your brain under high sympathetic drive.”
Of greater concern is chronic stress, which research has linked to asthma attacks, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses. In the liver, for instance, cortisol and epinephrine stimulate the release of glucose, a source of instant energy for the brain and muscles. In diabetics though, the rise in blood sugar is unnecessary and unsafe.
So can stress be managed, or contained? Morgan, who spent 24 years as a forensic psychiatrist at Yale University, tried to answer that question by studying stress response and performance in Special Operations Forces. He found measurable differences in body chemistry between these elite soldiers and average recruits: Special Forces soldiers were able to stay calm during harsh training scenarios by releasing higher levels of natural stress suppressants. He credits their composure in part to stress inoculation, obtained through rigorous training pipelines—but the most resilient soldiers were already above average when they signed up.
Even if they aren't preternaturally anxiety-averse, soldiers can still be a good source for lessons on stress. War reporter Sebastian Junger has written extensively on the long term effects of stress on soldiers, and he points out that the percentage of veterans suffering from symptoms of PTSD exceeds the percentage of soldiers who actually see combat. Junger suspects the problem may be rooted in lost feelings of purpose and camaraderie, exacerbated by a cumbersome transition back to the coldly selfish and isolating reality of modern culture.
Not surprisingly, solutions are mainly tailored to the individual: one-on-one therapy, medication, exercise, even controlled breathing. Although there’s plenty of evidence to support the use of each technique, it may all leave you wondering why, with all of our advantages as an affluent nation, rates of mental illness and depression are still higher here than they are in lower income countries.
Modern society, Junger points out in his book Tribal, is afflicted with some of the highest rates of mental illness in human history, including anxiety. If Junger is correct, and our decline in mental health is attributable to society’s diminished capacity for shared sacrifice and collective living, then perhaps an assembly of friends and relatives is perfectly in order. Perhaps we should see Thanksgiving not as a cause of our stress, but as a solution.
Connor Narciso, a freelance writer and former combat medic with 3rd Special Forces Group.